Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Wolf at the Door
Over the weekend I was wandering around an antique store where a country radio station was blasting a song called "American Soldier." I wasn't surprised to learn later on that it's by Toby Keith. Keith, you will recall, was just another country singer until 9/11 and his famously belligerent response to it--that we should put a boot in the ass of anyone who looks at us funny ever again because, goddammit, we're America. Since then, he's become the unofficial troubadour of hoo-ah. Now, compared to what it could have been, "American Soldier" is relatively tame:

Yeah I'm real good under pressure, being all that I can be,
And I can't call in sick on Mondays when the weekend's been too strong,
I just work straight through the holidays,
And sometimes all night long.
You can bet that I stand ready when the wolf growls at the door,
Hey, I'm solid, hey I'm steady, hey I'm true down to the core,
And I will always do my duty, no matter what the price,
I've counted up the cost, I know the sacrifice,
Oh, and I don't want to die for you,
But if dyin's asked of me,
I'll bear that cross with honor,
'Cause freedom don't come free.

This sort of thing is squarely within the mainstream of American history, from the Minutemen on forward. Nobody would want it any other way if the survival of the country were on the line. But all wars are not created equal, no matter how much we'd like to believe they are. And it occurs to me that politicians can take advantage of our soldiers' deep faith in duty and country, and in our fellow citizens' deep-rooted desire to support whatever our soldiers are doing. As David Martin writes on ICH News in contemplation of the death of Pat Tillman, many of our soldiers--and those citizens who so vociferously support them at home--buy into the high school civics class version of America. It's not necessarily natural to look at the actions of the men behind the curtain--and in the case of Bush, at actions that make the cause of Keith's "American Soldier" less than completely noble, and make their sacrifices less than completely meaningful. It's easier to fall back on what we've always believed, in hopes that it will continue to be true--which we do at our peril.

No doubt some Americans are cranking up Keith's record to drown out the cognitive dissonance caused by the photos of abused Iraqi prisoners. From The Independent via ICH, Robert Fisk calls us, the Americans and the British, "victims of our high-flown morality." We believe that our cause is just, no matter what. So it's doubly difficult to stomach evidence that it is not--and that we are not the noble liberators we think we are. It's easier to fall back on what we've always believed, in hopes that it will continue to be true--which we do at our peril.

Fisk's article--and, I've got to acknowledge, some of my own comments now and then--contain a bit of class prejudice. The military is disproportionately composed of lower-middle-class Americans, many of whom simply lacked other career options in the Land of Opportunity. Those of us on more favored rungs of society--from my modest spot on up to the nobility who serve in the highest halls of government--simply do not bear the burden of military service in anything but a theoretical sense. But you can bet it would be different if everyone's son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin, or sibling were at risk of being shipped off to the desert.

The Bush Administration runs screaming into the night if the subject of reinstating the draft is raised in public. They know it would cost them the election if they were to propose it now. (If Bush is reelected, however, that's another story.) Which is why it's only liberals who have been calling for reinstating the draft so far--representative Charles Rangel of New York most prominently, and Wisconsin progressive Ed Garvey more recently. For once flag-draped coffins started flowing into places like Menomonee Falls and Winnetka and Westchester and Grosse Pointe--and my Madison suburb--the calculus of war support would likely change drastically. It's one thing to applaud people we don't know when they "bear that cross with honor/because freedom don't come free." It's another to take comfort in the idea when it's one of our own who's made the sacrifice.

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